Monday, October 31, 2011

Ghosts, Goblins & Things That Will Actually Kill You

I love Halloween, which is why I'm sitting at home alone, wearing my festive ghost-print pajama pants, tea in hand, writing this blog entry. As I sit here, eating my unfestive leftovers and unexciting salad, I'm laughing to myself. NPR is posting ghost stories, Buzzfeed posted "10 creepy photos from Halloweens Past", and articles like "13 Real Animals Lifted Directly Out of Your Nightmares" [] are actively being read.

So, I'm giggling to myself, pushing my food around in the bowl thinking, "how can I write a blog entry about things that are already halloween-esque?" This is a challenge for me, because I am not a fan of horror films. I know, you'd think someone who dedicates their life to viruses, parasites, and other creepy crawlies would be excited by the thought of paying $12 to go watch two hours of ghouls and scantily-clad ladies screaming... but I'm not.

Then I found this list of the 10 Scariest Horror Movie Characters (also on Buzzfeed, which is oddly addicting if you avoid all the celebrity gossip and pseudo health advice). While I have only seen one of these movies, I think I can match all of these horror movie characters with real horror. So here we go...

1. Exorcist Girl? Ebola

Sure, I haven't seen this movie, but I can recognize all the references from pea soup to spinning heads. There are parasites that take over their hosts' brain functions, but that's mostly seen in smaller animal models or with prion diseases (which are not parasites). Want to read about Ebola? Check out one of my past entry here.

2. Leatherface?  Leprosy.

 Leprosy is a really unfortunate infection that is fortunately curable when discovered early. Read up on it here.

3. Creepy Girl from Quarantine?  Hookworms.

Nothing says sexy like gnashing teeth.

4. Jason Vorheese?  Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis

Both Jason and Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis are found lurking in lakes and pools of water, and both will make you crazy. 

5. Old Man from The Unborn? Hobo Spiders.

My partner called my attention to these baby hand-sized wonders. Apparently, he used to wake up to them crawling on his chest, and the males also are very territorial and will charge at you and chase you around a room.

6. Pennywise from It the Clown? Tapeworm.

Both Pennywise the Clown and tapeworms lives amongst poop and eat your insides. The similarities are uncanny! Read about fun tapeworms here!

7. Freddy Kruger?  Bedbugs.

 ...because they get you in your sleep! Here's an older post about bedbugs that will make you want to sleep with one eye open.

8. The Girl from the Ring? Onchocerciasis.

 Onchocerciasis is the clinical term for "River Blindness", which is a disease caused by an infectious roundworm. This one is a bit of a stretch, I know, but that girl has creepy eyes.

9. Michael Meyers?  MRSA.

One of the latest things in medical news is drug resistance. Much like Michael Meyers, MRSA just wont die!

10. Old lady from Legion? 

Three Words: Ellen Albertini Dow

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Plague of Inaccurate Articles

I have to admit, I am partially in love and partially disgusted with the internet. On one hand, it's rad to have answers to almost any question right at your fingertips at any moment in time. But how do you know that those answers are correct? Half of the time I spend reading articles, I find myself thinking "who wrote this stuff anyway?"

Everyone I know is constantly worried about where to get the most accurate source of news about politics, social justice issues, business matters, etc., and I commend them for that. But I also want you to know that such an idea completely pertains to science as well.

I'd like to provide you with an example based on an article that was published this evening by NPR. Ok, I admit, I'm an avid listener to NPR, and I follow them on twitter so I don't have to sort through all the repetitive and mundane articles that come up on google news. But sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they are horribly wrong.

The article is called "Surprise in Your Sewage: Lots of Exotic Viruses", by Richard Knox. According to NPR's bio page, Richard Knox is totally adorable and has a wicked mustache. After reading the article in question, you'll also notice that he ironically won awards in 1995 for articles covering medical errors. Let's talk about your scientific errors, Richard.

The article starts out on an accurate note. Richard bluntly states that, well, being a scientist is harder than any job you've ever had. As someone who has worked a number of strange jobs (autopsy review assistant, event planner, health educator on a college campus, checker at whole foods,  bra slinger at victoria's secret... yea, I was 18, get over it), the time I've spent looking at human poop under a microscope, literally spending 24 hours straight in lab, or falling asleep while reading scientific paper after scientific paper only to wake up with highlighter ink all over my face has been truly hard. I think back to all the dangerous and toxic chemicals I've had to pour into tiny tubes, all the calculations that I had to check 6 times to make sure I didn't accidentally cause an explosion, or all the tubes of moisturizer I've had to purchase for my rough, over-ethanol'd hands, and I know that I love being a scientist.

After that distinction, the article falls apart quickly.

Fault #1: Inaccurate terms coined for viruses.
This is one of my biggest pet-peeves. It's one thing to convert scientific research articles into layman's news articles, but don't use words like "bugs" or "germs". It's wrong.

Richard doesn't stop there, though. He brings in the famous "microbes" term, which is invalid for this article to begin with. Sure, "microbe" is short for microorganism, meaning an organism that is of microscopic size, but it's a term that's typically reserved for bacteria.

 Also, the term "microbe" suggests that the organism is living, whether single-celled or otherwise. No one has determined whether viruses are "living". To say so, one way or another, is inaccurate.

Fault #2: Know your diseases, buddy.

Firstly, what is a "monkey microbe"? Is it a bacterium with a prehensile tail? There is something disturbing about the insinuated phylogeny of that term.

Anyway, Ebola is one of my favorite viruses. I love it. It's deadly and gross, and the amount of information known about it is relatively minimal. So minimal, in fact, that scientists have yet to identify the model system for it. There has been a lot of research done to try to identify monkeys as the model system, yet they have been unsuccessful. While the disease is seen in monkeys, its not necessarily the origin. Another target species is bats. So, to say that Ebola is a "monkey microbe" is wrong.

Once again, I understand the need to dilute such scientific language, but challenge your readers. Say its a "zoonotic virus" instead of "that jumps to humans when given the opportunity". I mean, come on. This isn't FOX news, now.

I have a hard time crediting articles that make such basic mistakes. I'm glad that Richard links to credible websites for further information, but we know that most people are going to stick to whatever is on the page right in front of them.

If you follow me on twitter, you may remember reading about a similar issue I had with an article for DemocracyNOW! that said that someone had been "cured of AIDS". This is wrong, and it just goes to show that the little details can have profound effects on the rest of your article's efficacy.

Want to get accurate information about science news? Here are some sites that I highly recommend:
Science News